Stepping up

2014-06-25 00:00

“TODAY’S the first time I made them smile,” said Jordan Jooste, grinning. It was a mild, golden afternoon and we were returning to Hilton after a trip to a school perched on a hill in Hhaza, beyond Mpophomeni. Jooste (17) helps lead a group of girls from St Anne’s Diocesan College which visits Julukandoda Senior Primary School most weeks to teach English to Grade 5 children.

The time allocated for the visit is tight and when we arrived at the dusty schoolyard, the waiting children were quickly marshalled into their regular groups, each supervised by one or more St Anne’s girls. The lesson, themed My Family, began in earnest and the children, who began learning English only last year in Grade 4, were subdued and painfully shy. Asked questions about their families, they struggled to reply.

Last year, the reading level of the country’s Grade 5 pupils was proclaimed a “catastrophe” by Dr Nick Taylor, head of the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (Needu) at the Department of Education. He was commenting on the finding that only five percent of Grade 5s surveyed read at the expected rate of 80 to 90 words per minute, and called for reading to become a national priority.

At St Anne’s College, a social-responsibility department that celebrates its 10th anniversary this year has been slowly sharpening its focus to zoom in on this crisis of illiteracy. Run by Louise Taylor, Stepp is involved in a range of alliances with local educational institutions, one of which is Julukandoda school.

What makes Stepp interesting is that every girl at St Anne’s, as well as a number of teachers, is involved in its work, which also incorporates the school’s leadership programme. Girls are required to volunteer time each year in projects of their choice and in Form 5 this commitment becomes weekly, with house leaders running different partnerships in which the unit is involved.

Their involvement goes beyond just helping others — one of the intentions is for them to acquire skills in funding and running social-entrepreneurship partnerships.

Stepp works in several areas, ranging from early childhood development to maths teacher training, but two partnerships also focus specifically on improving literacy: Making Libraries Happen and Abet. Making Libraries Happen works with schools to set up libraries and train staff where necessary, and Abet is a scheme that helps St Anne’s blue-collar staff upgrade their English to Grade 9 level (St Anne’s College is a registered Abet literacy training centre).

Back at Julukandoda, fluency seemed a long way off for the timid conversants in Jordan’s group, but teacher Nonhlanhla Mkhize, observing the activity in the quad, was upbeat. “There’s been a lot of improvement,” she said. “They’ve only been doing this since the beginning of the year. Before, they didn’t want to speak, but now they are trying to in class.” In addition to learning a new language, the children have another hurdle as English became their only medium of instruction in Grade 4, which makes competency in the language critical.

The schoolgirl teachers had taken along a dress-up box so that their pupils could act out different members of their families, and the quad was soon filled with laughter and activity.

“Just to socialise with other races is a big deal for them,” said Mkhize, as the groups of teens and pre-teens moved through their routines — an experience that no doubt touches both groups. And this interaction of peers of different ages is also a valuable aspect which Taylor said aids the learning process.

Three days before, I’d observed another group of Grade 5s, from Nogqaza Senior Primary School in Howick, having their weekly lesson at St Anne’s. The lesson, part of a programme called Smile interactive literacy, started in a classroom with teacher Urasha Ramnarain, St Anne’s head of history, who took the class briskly through a survey of sports vocabulary. “Answer in full sentences,” she kept repeating, and mostly the children were able to do that.

“I think that’s because the Smile programme has been at Nogqaza for years now. We’ve also been interacting with them through helping to set up their library so that makes a difference,” explained Taylor, who once lectured political drama at UKZN and has studied social entrepreneurship at the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs).

The library she speaks of, housed in a container on the school property, was established in 2008 after the school approached them asking for help. “We had a reading club where the girls came and read with the children, and we all realised that a library was needed,” said Taylor, adding that help is only given when requested.

Making Libraries Happen works with two other organisations to set up container libraries in schools. Some of them have been stocked with books collected by St Anne’s girls, and some by Books for Africa, an American-based charity. Part of setting up a library includes training staff in how to organise and run it, as well as ensuring that books go out and come back in.

“Most of the schools we’re involved with are already keen and reading,” said Taylor.

At Nogqaza Primary in Howick, the enthusiasm of teachers Chris Maphumulo and Victor Shange was palpable.

“If a child can’t read they can’t write,” said Maphumulo, who teaches English. “If children have been reading for a few years, it shows in their language and confidence. They can communicate without any problem.” For Shange, who had accompanied the group of children to St Anne’s when I visited, the weekly lessons and access to books are helping with independent reading.

Establishing reading in schools where libraries are new is not easy. A lack of trained librarians means that existing staff must take on the responsibility of running them, requiring training — which Stepp provides links to — and time. Maphumulo, who runs Nogqaza’s library in his spare time, says books are mostly only allowed out for weekends. In the absence of a proper indexing system, he has an exercise book where children record what they’ve taken.

“You have to work with where the school is and build from there,” said Taylor. Change happens slowly, but providing even a sliver of access can make a difference. In the bus home from Julukandoda on that sunny afternoon, there was a discussion among the girls about how hard it had been when they first started going there some months ago. Then I heard a voice behind me.

“When we got there today they were playing Simon Says with the teacher. We taught them that.”

• Stepp was started in 2004 at

the request of the board of St Anne’s.

• Although ad hoc to start with, Stepp has grown and become more defined, now aiming to “provide access to all South Africans to excellent education”.

• Stepp is involved in early childhood development, adult basic education and training, libraries, literacy, maths teacher training and science education.

• The NGO’s budget of about R500 000 is bolstered by several funders, most of whom wish to remain anonymous. Anglo American Chairman’s Fund sponsors the maths programme.

• Stepp works towards sustainable funding through educating the girls on funding, practising social enterprise and expecting them to fund their partnerships. It has created passive funding platforms and runs a tuck shop, all of which generate income annually.

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